Casual Causality: Beyond Proximate Cause; or, The O-Ring Syndrome Revisited

An accident is an event that is fortuitous and unforeseen. That’s how life works. Yet we try to figure out what we did to deserve it and why we didn’t see it coming. But if we can figure it out, then it was not an accident. We might know how, but we can’t know why.

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes mama with the baby carriage. Love is an accident. BP’s drills appear as effective in avoiding undesired consequences as the Catholic Church’s promulgating the rhythm method for birth control. Both allow drilling to continue as a risky business with high promise of failure. For the Church, the method aimed to keep pews full; for BP, the deep water drilling without adequate protection aimed to keep its stocks on the rise.

Ellen Goodman, writing in the Tri-City Herald back in 1983, discusses an ultimate proximate cause she labels “the O-Ring Syndrome,” the tendency to view catastrophic events as triggered by the failure of minute considerations. The term comes from the dramatic and awful disintegration of the 1986 space shuttle Challenger. The mission failure was attributed to an O-ring that malfunctioned, a tiny rubber seal that failed to perform its job and set in motion a chain of events that ultimately ended in damage and death. A correlative cause may have been cold weather. In any case, working backward from the first moment of irreparable or irreversible harm, one stops at the O-ring because it appears to be the end (and thus the beginning, or proximate cause) of the unbroken chain of events that lead to the accident.

The problem with Goodman’s O-Ring Syndrome is that as an explanation it creates an illusion of control. If the O-ring is properly identified as the cause, we can avoid future accidents by ensuring the O-ring does not fail in the same way again, because, applying the “but for” test, had it not been for the failure of the O-ring, the accident would not have occurred. But the O-ring Syndrome as an explanation for accidents limits the explanation to events of physical or bodily damage. But what if an O-ring fails but does not lead to damage? Can the definition of accident be broadened to include events that do not necessarily lead to physical or bodily damage? If so, in the case of BP and the current Gulf oil leak, multiple accidents have already occurred.

Finding the O-ring responsible for BP’s oil leak isn’t difficult, and correlations from ineffective regulatory agencies to manipulated workers to greedy BP executives have been suggested. If we look beyond the O-ring, prior to proximate cause, to explain the accident, we find BP operating like one of E. O. Wilson’s massive ant hills, a single organism that is emergent from smaller parts, not predictable from any one part. BP’s ant hill includes what we value, and what we value isn’t necessarily good for us. We value oil. The oil leak in the Gulf is an accident of value.

James Surowiecki, on the regulation crisis in the June 14 & 21 New Yorker, speaking of the recent rash of financial accidents, Bernie and the [other] Jets, (as well as the Massey mining disaster) correctly estimates that “these failures weren’t accidents.” But he’s still caught in the O-Ring Syndrome: “They were the all too predictable result of the deregulationary fervor that has gripped Washington in recent years, pushing the message that most regulation is unnecessary at best and downright harmful at worst.” If the events were predictable, they were not accidents. The proximate cause is value, what we want. Moreover, in many cases, the failures did not lead to physical damage or bodily harm; to the contrary, the bailout, like some benevolent insurance policy, made some people whole again and more. The mistake is to assume that adequate regulation would have prevented the failures. Adequate regulation may have minimized the frequency and severity of the events, but the only way to avoid accident is to avoid risk, because of a true accident, we can never know why.


  1. John Wilson says:

    Definition of “accident”: While it is safe to say that an accident is “unexpected”, I would not associate the term “fortuitous” with such an unexpected event. In modern parlance the term “fortuitous” has also come to imply an associated “goodness” with that unexpected event. I concede that this is a minor point, and is almost not worth mentioning.

    On the plus side, I wish to congratulate the writer on his well thought out analysis of “proximal” versus less obvious but more pervasive and wider ranging causes of failure. I am tempted to throw my hat into this semantic circus only because I have considerable background in the areas of Reliability Engineering, Root Cause Analysis, Risk Analysis, and Quality Assurance applied to the prevention and correction of problems which lead to low quality and/or failure. For starters, it is widely acknowledged in the Quality Assurance domain that a good Quality/Safety Management Plan is necessary before any kind of a controlled result can be expected from a production or services process.

    No Plan, No Process, No Inspections, No Accountability
    A good working plan will include process and product variables which can be examined along the way towards final delivery of the product or services in question. So far, I have not seen much evidence of such a plan for the oil drilling in the Gulph… specifically I have seen nothing for the oil platform in question.

    Good Quality Assurance incorporates the presumption that the delivery of any product/service is the end result of successive stages in the production process, and that errors are best caught earlier in the process. The sooner a defect is found, the easier and cheaper it is to fix.

    Finally, I have yet to see who has been delegated the responsibility of assuring that such a plan and its parameters are measured and inspected on a regular basis. And while no one seems willing to step up and assume responsibility for this mess (not withstanding vacuous public rhetoric and blatant unresponsiveness by the administration), it is clear that the administration has everything to gain by protracted and indifferent responses to those who are suffering. This is perfectly consistent with their previous destructive actions which seem to be geared towards dismantling American society and its institutions. This formula for change by crisis and chaos was formally described over 40 years ago by Cloward and Piven at Columbia University. Hence, the administration’s adage of “Never let a good crisis go to waste!”

    BP may shoulder primary blame for the accident, but the Obama Administration has shown itself once again to be anti-American and irresponsible in its primary responsibility to protect the American people. It bears the lion’s share of blame for allowing the oil spill to persist and to spread as widely as it has. It has shown no leadership, no disaster planning, and no aid to the coastal states. They have actively shunned requests to provide aid rather than coordinating and facilitating these various cleanup suggestions. Furthermore, the fact that this is the biggest & most horrific accident in offshore oil drilling and that it occurred on Obama’s watch is cause for great suspicion given his prior and ongoing record of corruption and dishonesty. He is not even a Constitutionally legitimate president; which goes a long way towards explaining his indifference to this emergency.


    1. Joe Linker says:

      Thanks for comment, John. With regard to fortuitous, I was thinking that if one wins a lottery, it can only be by accident; but yes, the word accident connotes for most readers a negative event. But this may not have been its original meaning. From the OED: a. An occurrence, incident, event. Obs. b. Anything that happens without foresight or expectation; an unusual event, which proceeds from some unknown cause, or is an unusual effect of a known cause; a casualty, a contingency. the chapter of accidents: the unforeseen course of events. c. esp. An unfortunate event, a disaster, a mishap.

      But if we recognize that accidents are by their nature fortuitous, we may avoid the fallacy of thinking we can avoid them. What we can avoid, or minimize, are those events that with proper planning, as you point out, can be anticipated, prepared for, and avoided or damage mitigated. The lack of damage control in the Gulf, as you also point out, seems to be another example, given your evidence (though I am not necessarily in agreement with regard to apportioning out the severity), that is not an accident. This month’s Rolling Stone magazine, June 24, contains a fair assessment and evaluation of causes and response (or lack of): Like “semantic circus.” Not sure the ad hominem adds anything credible to the analysis.


      1. John Wilson says:

        Thanks for sharing your link to Rollingstone.

        My apportionment of severity is probvably understandable when viewed from a perspective of our “progressive” plight towards loss of our Constitutional Republic. So hopefully you will forgive my slip towards the ad hominum and somewhat emotional side of my nature.


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